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July 24, 2003

AP journalist describes difficulties of war coverage

“If I were going to give anyone advice on being a journalist, it would be that the most important thing is to realize how much you don’t know,” said Associated Press editor and reporter Ted Anthony in a lecture here Monday.

Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, Anthony confessed, he knew “virtually nothing” about the Muslim world. Two weeks after the terrorist attacks, his bosses sent him to Pakistan.

Anthony has been assigned, off and on, to predominantly Islamic countries ever since then, despite the fact that his job title with AP is China news editor (not that China doesn’t have a sizeable, and growing, Muslim minority of its own).

In Afghanistan, Anthony covered breaking news and wrote in-depth pieces about societal changes following the Taliban’s fall. Most recently, Anthony spent eight weeks from April to June as AP’s interim Iraq news editor, overseeing coverage of the closing stages of the war and its aftermath.

“I feel like now, I still know almost nothing about the Muslim world,” he said.

“One of the problems with journalism in general is the notion that, because you’ve been in a place, you’re automatically an expert on it. That’s a dangerous notion,” said Anthony.

He noted that American reporters he met in Iraq were ignorant of that country’s post-World War I period as a League of Nations protectorate (a quasi-colony) of Great Britain, an experience that bred resentment and suspicion that still embitter Iraqis’ views of the West.

Clearly, Anthony was being modest about his own knowledge of Islam and its 1 billion-plus followers — understandably so, given that he was addressing an audience made up mainly of scholars from Pitt’s University Center for International Studies, an academic unit where, as a boy, he “used to cause a lot of trouble,” he recalled.

“I have to admit that, to some extent, it’s a little bit odd to be here because whenever I come here I feel like a 13-year-old boy again,” said Anthony, who is the son of Edward M. Anthony, a Pitt professor emeritus of linguistics and former director of the Asian studies program. (Visibly beaming with pride and accepting colleagues’ congratulatory handshakes on their son’s success, Ted Anthony’s parents attended his lecture, held in 4E51 Posvar Hall.)

Growing up in an academic family, Ted Anthony was aware of the mutual suspicion between journalists and scholars, he said: Academicians accuse journalists of oversimplifying complex issues; journalists view academicians’ work as being unnecessarily detailed.

That conflict was apparent in the questions that audience members asked Anthony.

Why was U.S. news coverage of the Iraq war so unfailingly upbeat, with the Fox Network’s staff being the most strenuous flag-wavers? asked Bob Donnorumo of Pitt’s Center for Russian and East European Studies.

Where were the skepticism and investigative reporting that characterized American coverage of the Vietnam War? others asked.

“I think some of that was [attributable to] our audience,” Anthony replied. “Bush’s approval ratings played into it. If you’re a newspaper editor and you’re choosing a story, aren’t you more likely to choose a follow-up on the rescue of Jessica Lynch for your readers than you are a story about someone criticizing the United States? I would hope that it would be otherwise, but….”

“Was there a rescue of Jessica Lynch?” asked Christina Paulston, a retired Pitt linguistics professor. “There’s some question about that.”

AP’s own in-depth report — published in its entirety by U.S.A. Today and many other news outlets, Anthony said — concluded that the rescue was “legitimate but significantly over-dramatized.”

It’s not that AP and other U.S.-based news organizations haven’t questioned America’s motives or reported on military and administrative mistakes before, during and after the war, said Anthony.

But according to Anthony, the daily exercise of pulling together dozens — even hundreds — of reports from journalists “embedded” with military units, as well as “unilaterals” (free-ranging reporters), was like viewing the war through 1,000 drinking straws, to quote Allied supreme commander Tommy Franks.

There is so much to cover, and most news organizations are so short-staffed, that hard-hitting, issue-oriented reporting is the first kind to go, said Anthony. “If you have a story that involved a bit more digging and is harder-edged, but then four American troops are killed in an ambush, there’s only one of those two stories that you have to do. You can’t not do the story about the troops who were killed.”

Especially for the AP, which is a not-for-profit cooperative with 1,800 member news organizations (mostly newspapers) and 8,000 foreign subscribers, spot news gets priority. First report the facts, then interpret them.

“I don’t offer that as a defense” of AP’s coverage, “merely as an insight,” Anthony said.

“My sister once asked my mother, ‘What was your philosophy in bringing us up?’” he recalled. “And my mother said, ‘My philosophy was just getting through the day.’ In a very real way, that’s what [journalists] were trying to do. We had to cover more than we ever humanly could. We were working 18-hour days. Some of us were in danger. The communications were horrible. And within that framework, we needed to make decisions on what to cover, how to cover it and how to write it.”

Anthony challenged his audience with this scenario: Looking out your window at the streets of Baghdad, you see plumes of smoke rising in the distance. “You know that there are hundreds of looting fires,” Anthony said. “You know that if you send someone to cover this one, they will be gone for two or three hours. You probably won’t be able to get in touch with them during that time. But if you don’t send someone and it turns out to be a major attack, then you’re screwed. If you do send someone and it turns out to be nothing, you’ve lost a staffer who could have covered another story or helped another reporter to understand another story better.”

Anthony also talked about:

• Embedding of journalists. “For a journalist, the embedding process was better than what was in place during the first Gulf War, when there was no access whatsoever. But it also, obviously, didn’t provide anywhere near an entire picture” of the war, said Anthony. Choosing units with which to embed reporters “was very much a crapshoot,” he said. “If the military strategy changed, you could end up with a unit that wasn’t even in Iraq. We were fortunate, in that many of the units we chose were units that were up front” in the fighting.

• The war’s aftermath. “Coverage of a war has a great deal of automatic trajectory to it,” Anthony said. “Covering the aftermath of a war involves making a lot more choices about what to cover, in the sense that not everything is being thrown right at you.” Anthony, who arrived in Iraq on April 25, said resistance to Allied forces was not endemic during the first few weeks after Baghdad fell. “It was a period of chaotic limbo, when Iraqis were trying to figure out what to make of the invading forces, and vice versa.”

• Sept. 11’s aftermath. Prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, most Americans “had not been exposed to Islam in the slightest,” Anthony noted. “If there is one good thing that came out of [Sept. 11] it’s that people in this country are now trying to understand the Muslim world….For something to be made sense of, first it has to be an issue on the table.”

• Daniel Pearl, the 38-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter and expectant father who, in 2002, was kidnapped and murdered by Pakistani terrorists. “When he was kidnapped, I thought, ‘What kind of idiot would do something like that [attempt to contact and interview terrorists] when his wife was six months pregnant? Then I went to Iraq when my wife was seven months pregnant,” said Anthony. “I felt horrible for him, but in a way I was a little bit angry that he did what he did. Now, I understand. Many journalists are very deeply motivated in wanting to figure out what’s happening in the world, and why.”

Anthony explained that he was named to head AP’s operations in Iraq while on assignment in Qatar. His wife was back in Pittsburgh, in her third trimester of pregnancy, and Anthony didn’t want to return to his permanent job in Beijing for fear of contracting the SARS virus there and bringing it back when he, himself, returned to Pittsburgh for the birth of his child.

“My bosses said, ‘That’s fine. We completely understand. We would not expect you to go back to Beijing under those circumstances.’” Pause. “‘Could you go to Baghdad for eight weeks?’”

• His next assignment. “My next assignment is being a father,” said Anthony, whose son Edward Mason Anthony V was born June 25. Anthony plans eventually to return to China, in his opinion a country of supreme importance to the United States. He added, with a laugh: “My parents dragged my ass off to China in 1979, so I figure it ought to pay a dividend.”

— Bruce Steele

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